Possum-haw Holly (Ilex decidua)

Dr. William C. Welch, Professor & Landscape Horticulturist
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Each year in November and December, there is a flurry of interest by consumers, customers, and gardeners in what they call the 'yaupon-like plant without any leaves'. Ilex decidua attracts so much attention because of its spectacular and unique presentation of red, orange, and yellow fruit, which appear when the foliage drops in November or early December. The colorful berries usually remain all winter unless they are removed by the cedar waxwing or one of the other nine species of birds known to feed on the fruit.

Possum-haw hollies are useful in the landscape as large shrubs or small trees, and may occur with single or multiple trunks. Female plants are preferred, since male selections are fruitless and provide little ornamental value.

Possum-haw holly
Possum-haw holly

Culture is easy. Possum-haws are native from East Texas to western regions of the state, and grow in a wide variety of soil and moisture conditions. They tolerate poor drainage quite well, but will thrive under fairly dry situations.

Availability is getting better, but expect some difficulty in locating nursery-grown plants. Some nurseries are now growing female selections from cuttings, which assures the fruit color and sex of the plant. In any area where native "yaupons" or similar hollies are present, there is usually no need to specifically purchase a male tree in order to effect pollination.

Seeds are easily propagated, but this often results in a high percentage of male plants. Determining their gender is not practical until plants are old enough to flower, which may be in 2 to 4 years.

If collecting specimens from their native habitat, two things should be kept in mind. First, select a plant with at least a few berries; second, unless you have access to large-scale digging equipment, choose a small plant. Possum-haws grow quickly once established; however, large collected plants can be slow to recover from transplanting. Ilex decidua is a beautiful and potentially useful small tree adapted to most of Texas. Increasing availability should make it a popular choice for many home owners.

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